- Historic Sites
Westward on the Old Lincoln Highway
The nation’s first transcontinental motor route can still be experienced in all its obsolescent charm.
April 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 2
I had been driving across Pennsylvania’s hills and valleys for five hours when suddenly my destination for the evening appeared ahead. On a high, level clearing in the state’s mountainous southwest quarter, just beyond the immaculate little town of Bedford, stood the Lincoln Motor Court, a roadside lodging almost exactly the way it looked when travelers passed by in Hudson Hornets and Studebaker Land Cruisers.
The gravel driveway made low, crunching sounds as my car pulled into the court—a U-shaped cluster of thirteen clean little cabins, each of them surfaced in gray Permastone, with white shutters adorning the windows and old-fashioned metal lawn chairs waiting by the front doors. Hip-roofed cabin No. 6 was all mine for twenty dollars a night. What more could an explorer of historic highways ask? I had set out to travel the nation’s first transcontinental motor route, and here I was experiencing the famous Lincoln Highway in all its obsolescent charm.
In 1912 Carl Graham Fisher, president of the Prest-O-Lite carbide headlight manufacturing company and founder of the Indianapolis 500, had first advocated building a road that would let people drive from the Atlantic to the Pacific on a “rock highway”: drive without devoting weeks to the journey, drive without choking in clouds of dust or sinking in axledeep mud. That year the United States Congress had decided to spend $1.7 million to erect the Lincoln Memorial in Washington—a solemn and inspiring piece of symbolism, certainly, but, in Fisher’s view, low on practicality. Highway promoters like Fisher and his ally Henry Joy, the Packard Motor Car Company president, insisted there was a more useful way to honor the sixteenth President. Asserted Joy: “Let good roads be built in the name of Lincoln.”
The plan called for a 3,389-mile route starting in Manhattan’s Times Square and ending in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park.
Fisher and Joy’s plan, as it evolved, called for a 3,389-mile route starting in New York City’s Times Square, spanning the Hudson River via ferries, climbing the nearly three-thousand-foot ridges of the Allegheny Mountains, traversing the mammoth Midwestern prairie, crossing the deserts of Utah and Nevada, and weaving through the Sierra Nevada before coming to an end in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park.
It was a proposal both audacious and prescient. Few people were prepared to make a transcontinental auto trip in 1912. Those who wanted to travel quickly and comfortably went by rail. Nevertheless, by 1912 there were 901,000 cars in operation, and in just three years the number would nearly triple. By 1920 automobile registration would surpass the eight-million mark. Leaders of the nascent auto industry saw the scarcity of reliable roads as an obstacle requiring an all-out national campaign. So Fisher and Joy proposed a motor route that would let Americans drive across the continent to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a much-anticipated event that San Francisco was going to mount in 1915.
Fisher and Joy were wildly overoptimistic. The cross-country route they charted was primitive when the San Francisco show opened, and it was primitive when the exposition closed a year later. But in their advocacy of roads and cars, the industrialists foresaw a great transformation. The Lincoln Highway, and other roads like it, revolutionized travel. Within fifteen years they spurred into existence a national highway system. Within forty years they generated corridors of commerce that supplied gas, food, lodging, and every other basic need of the American motorist. The Lincoln Motor Court near Bedford was one of the countless businesses brought into being by the expanding highway.
On a breezy Sunday, with the clouds threatening rain, I headed west from Times Square in New York City to follow what remains of the original Lincoln Highway. Early travelers from New York drove to the west end of Fortysecond Street to ride a car ferry across the Hudson River to Weehawken, New Jersey. There they climbed the Jersey cliffs—pausing, if traffic was light, for a panoramic view of New York—and proceeded through a series of closely spaced cities and towns, Newark, Jersey City, and Elizabeth among them. In New Jersey a third of the Lincoln Highway followed existing city and town streets. These, Drake Hokanson observes in his justly celebrated book The Lincoln Highway: Main Street Across America , were dependable, but as soon as cars and trucks proliferated, they became annoyingly congested.